Donna Poniatowski and her husband Charlie Sims closed the property in August. Dr. Eugene Oppman, owner and developer of the Carver Theater on Orleans Avenue, bought the business with the assistance of Morris Kahn, a local tax-credit incentive specialist. The building that Donna’s (the business) occupies at 800 North Rampart, is owned by the Cahn family (they also own the building that used to house the Funky Butt, and the property on Frenchmen where the club Maison is currently located).
Morris Kahn, who represents Oppman, says that he will file a lawsuit within the next two weeks in an attempt to reinstate the license. Kahn told OffBeat that the license he received from the city was legal, but the Board of Zoning Adjustments decided to remove the live entertainment license because they judged that the City had improperly granted the license because the original business “Donna’s” had been closed more than six months, and therefore the live entertainment license was no longer grandfathered in.
“This is nothing more than an attack on the New Orleans culture in our neighborhood, “ said Kahn. “There are a lot of ‘code words’ being used by people who don’t want ‘those people’ in their neighborhood. To say the least, I’m very disappointed at the way this has turned out.”
Leo Watermeier, who lives on North Rampart Street, said “Neighbors, including myself, testified that the new incarnation of Donna’s created major disturbances with its overly-amplified music, open front doors, and outside crowd—whereas the original Donna’s had been a good neighbor. I testified that not once in 17 years had I ever heard Donna’s music in my house or complained to Donna, whereas every night I was being disturbed by the new Donna’s. We had also found that the new owners were unresponsive to our concerns.” Watermeier also said he could personally support “some form of live entertainment at Donna’s, but only under different ownership.”
Kahn alleges that he spoke with the neighbors in the vicinity of Donna’s when he applied for the license.
Representatives of VCPORA and French Quarter Citizens were in the audience but did not testify because their groups had not taken a stand on the issue.
The Funky Butt and Donna’s were the last two live music venues on North Rampart. The Funky Butt closed just prior to Katrina as the business operators at that time (“Big Sam” Williams and his wife) could not afford to make costly repairs to the building. They were actively looking to move the Funky Butt to Frenchmen Street, but Katrina ended that venture and the Funky Butt closed. A new operator attempted to reopen the location on North Rampart as a live music venue but was unable to obtain a live music permit. Residents on the North Rampart side of the French Quarter have long been opposed to permitting any live music on the street, as they fear that North Rampart could become another Frenchmen Street, or even another Bourbon Street, in terms of noise and an element of street traffic they don’t want on North Rampart.
Donna’s has 30 days to file an appeal in Civil District Court, and Kahn vowed that he will assemble a wide group of supporters for live music poerformances on North Rampart.
As a music supporter, I have always thought that it was a crime not to allow live music on North Rampart. It edges Armstrong Park and Congo Square. It’s an ideal place for an entertainment and cultural district. It would create walking traffic on North Rampart—which is, after all, a four-lane commercial avenue—that would certainly deter crime, and provide more of a focus for Armstrong Park.
The residents who live on the Rampart side of the Quarter do have a point, however, in that there’s a real problem with enforcement of noise ordinances by the city. My contention is that if North Rampart were designated as a cultural and music district, the city and the group who oversee the district would have more control over noise and architectural preservation in this area. In my mind, the pros of creating a North Rampart entertainment district with music far outweigh the cons.
What’s better for the city: a street where there’s no traffic, lots of crime, a derelict park, no music and few retail outlets just so a few people won’t have their sleep disturbed? Or a vibrant cultural and entertainment district that could—with the proper enforcement and development—become another jewel of the city? To me, it’s a no-brainer.